on 7 December 2014
One of those books you can't put down. I read the whole book in just a few days.
It's beautifully easy to read, and combines the writers own journey through grief with T.H.White's struggles to define a sense of self, both of which are tied up in a necessity for nature, borne in their love of falconry.
It explores the way we often retreat to nature as a healing mechanism, and delves into the very essence of modern humanity.
A truly cathartic read which has aligned my own personal struggles, I would advise anyone with a love of nature who is suffering inner turmoil to read this book.
on 21 December 2014
I had read T. H. White's 'The Goshawk' many years ago and had quite forgotten the tone of it's contents. I was, therefore, intrigued as to what Helen Macdonald had to say on the subject of hawks, particularly so because both my wife and I were once avid birdwatchers together. However, "Do not judge a book by its cover", especially so with 'H is for Hawk'. In retrospect, I am somewhat bemused that this book has been bought by many birdwatchers, according to Amazon. The Amazon classification for this book, Birdwatching, is more than somewhat misleading as it is clearly, in part, about falconry. Certainly it is a book describing the experience of training a goshawk but that is very much in the context of being a sub plot to Helen's overwhelming grief at the sad loss of her father. It really isn't about ornithology and birdwatching per se though it is highly informative and beautifully written on this topic alone.
To a degree falconry forms a backcloth to the story of Helen's inner battle with her overwhelming grief though that backcloth is highly significant as it sets the emotional scene.
The overwhelming confusion, disorientation, bewilderment and stress that Helen portrays in expressing her grief and sadness whilst encountering her grief, the suffering of suffering, is a must read for anyone who has had to deal with or is currently encountering this dreadful, enervating emotion. Based on my own experience I would go so far as to favorably compare 'H is for Hawk' with C.S. Lewis 'A Grief Observed'. It is a warm, human and poetically written book. And, in places, I also found it to be hilariously funny too.
It is possible that some readers may misinterpret Helen's writing as self-absorption whereas I often found it to be a gentle, intelligent, human, form of self-deprecation.
If I have any criticism at all, though only a very mild one, that is the book could, possibly, have formed three separate books, each with their own individual merit. However, I have enjoyed 'H is for Hawk' so very much just as it is.
I have gone back to re-read 'The Goshawk', to put things into context for me. And, replaced my long lost copy of 'A Grief Observed'.
Thank you Helen for writing your story.
on 26 February 2015
I bought the book to see what all the interest is about and to get some insight into someone recovering from grief. In essence there are 4 main characters in the book - the writer of a book about Goshawks, the author, the author's father, and the Goshawk. Some of the writing is wonderful and beautiful but other places its a bit repetitious. Also I could not get to grips with the relationship between the author and her father, and get a sense of the author's relationship with the rest of her family or friends. It all seemed a bit stand offish, and very English! Perhaps I expected too much? I understand that many people have difficult relationships with their parents and grief affects people in different ways - there is also something special about relationships between fathers and daughters - but I did not get a sense of why this relationship was so special? I did learn a lot about Goshawks though and that did act as a bit of a counterpoint.
on 3 August 2014
I have waited for over thirty years for this book. As a fellow austringer (one who trains goshawks) I am as one with the author during her trials and tribulations, but also with the intense and highly charged emotions that transpire. Not the grief she so openly shares with the reader on the death of her father, but the passion for her hawk and everything that wraps up the process of training; mirrored so intensely with that of T H White in his extraordinary book The Goshawk.
Few falconry books are great literature and even fewer impart the art, philosophy and history that constructs our part in a hawk's life. Falconry is not a hobby, it is a way of life. Rarely is it captured with such impact, not since Ronald Stevens does the reader enter a falconer's life and log on to all that is involved. If you want to understand about why we falconers are so single-minded and seem so obsessed then you must read this book. Furthermore, if you need an insight into a relationship that dominates most human relationships, then read on. You will not be disappointed, and you will learn something that few achieve today - being at one with a natural hunting process.
I’m definitely in the minority with this one. It has received almost universal acclaim, rave reviews and won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. But I found it tedious and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. An amalgam of nature writing, memoir and literary history, the impetus for writing it came from Helen Macdonald’s extreme grief at the sudden death of her father, to whom she was very close. In a strange sort of identification, she bought and trained a goshawk, Mabel. Mabel became her companion in mourning and the bird’s rage and violence seemed to reflect Macdonald’s own rage at her loss. She’s had a lifelong obsession with birds of prey, and this is her second book about them, the first being a cultural history. Certainly there is a lot of interesting information in this book, and I enjoyed her reflections on T H White and his own experience with a goshawk. He had a very combative relationship with his bird and his battles with it reflected his battle with his own demons and it’s clear that Macdonald sees nature as a mirror of a person’s own emotions. The writing is powerful and often poetic, and there’s little to actually dislike about the book. But it just isn’t one I could relate to, nor could I relate to her extreme grief or her relationship with the bird, and thus I remained unmoved.
on 29 May 2015
This is quite different from any books I have read recently and perhaps for that reason I found it quite difficult to get into. It is beautifully written, no doubt about that, but it was a book I found it hard to engage with. The language is not difficult by any means but you do need to focus so it's not a light read. It's a book you can easily dip in and out of though, so perhaps just a few chapters at a time is the way to tackle this book. It worked for me anyway!
I am a huge fan of ospreys and follow the progress of the Scottish ospreys via blogs, webcams and have also visited a couple of the nesting sites. So I do have an interest in birds of prey and was interested in the training of a goshawk described in this book. It did make make feel a bit uneasy though. A beautiful wild bird should be flying free surely? However, I could clearly feel the deep connection that Macdonald has for goshawks in general and her affection for Mabel, her own goshawk. I found the sections about T H White the most interesting. They were as much a social history of his time as biography of this writer and goshawk owner. I expected there to be more about the death of Macdonald's father and her grief following his sudden death. What was written on the subject was intensely moving though, particularly her description of her father's memorial service.
I would say that this book would probably be best enjoyed by those who have an interest in birds. But given its obvious success and popularity, I could be wrong. Try it for yourself and see.
on 22 February 2015
When I heard that the Costa prize was awarded to a non-fiction natural history book, as an owner of dozens of more conventional non-fiction natural history books (though none of them hawk-related), I was delighted and keen to ready it for myself. I didn't really know what to expect though, and having read all the way through I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.
H is for Hawk tells the story of the author's love of the goshawk, her purchase of a young bird which she rears and names Mabel, and the rigours of falconry as she details the first months of training the bird to fly to order. As you'd expect from such an acclaimed book, it's very much more than that though. She interweaves the factual elements of the story with the difficult grieving process she feels for her father, as well as relating her experiences to those of TH White - the author of the "Goshawk" book from an earlier era.
Often I found myself stepping back from the subject of the book and just appreciating the writing. The prose was quite beautifully written - the descriptions used and the writing style always gave such a detailed account of the author's experiences and emotions. It was this that made me feel like I was reading a masterpiece - a deserved award-winner of a book. The quality never dropped from start to finish and had me reading with enjoyment right to the end.
However like some of the other reviewers it didn't always sit quite right with me - as if it were trying too hard. The author makes a fascinating job of tying together the experiences of raising Mabel, her hawk, with the grief felt over the loss of her father and her subsequent emotions of empathy with the hawk in a world she felt difficult to cope with at times. But was this a bit like self-psychoanalysing throughout? And I'm also not entirely sure where all the references to White's falconry book are needed, other than possibly to pad the book out to the length of a standard novel - they did not always seem to add much, and seemed (almost) to stop half way through the book. I genuinely think the fault is most likely mine, and not McDonald's, for not fully understanding the references, but I think, like me, most readers will be neither a hawker nor a historian, therefore not appreciating the book in its entirety. The book is as esoteric as it is skilfully and beautifully written.
I enjoyed the book and would recommend it not just to fans of nature writing - even if it wasn't a hundred percent for me, just to take a step back and appreciate how nicely written the book was means it would be a travesty to give it any less than four stars
on 29 March 2015
Not impressed. How did this book win prizes? It's a curious hotch potch - part text book, part pure narrative, lots of elaborate descriptions and technical information that grind because you feel the author straining to impress with her vocabulary and knowledge. And she's completely obsessed ... with a hawk. If I were equally obsessed, maybe it would grab my attention ... as I'm not it becomes highly put-downable, And I can't get engrossed because I feel I should question everything she's telling me .... just because she's so clearly lacking any sense of proportion. Obviously I'm in a minority here but my advice is to steer well clear of this strange rambling.
Devastated by the sudden death of her father when she is in her early thirties, author Helen Macdonald finds herself lost, overwhelmed, and dealing with a “kind of madness.” She and her father were especially close. They had loved walking for hours in the woods of Hampshire, and she had always wanted to become a falconer. Her parents, sympathetic, had even allowed her, after much pleading, to accompany a group of falconers hunting with goshawks in the field when she was only twelve. Within the first twenty minutes, she sees an enormous goshawk kill a pheasant, an event which draws her to the site of the kill, where she picks six coppery feathers free… It was death I had seen. I wasn’t sure what it had made me feel.”
Now, much older, she understands. Following her father’s death, she says, “I felt odd…like my brain had been removed and my skull stuffed with something like microwaved aluminum foil, dinted, charred, and shorting with sparks.” Her instinctive reaction is to go to “the broken forest” to see the goshawks, “spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets.” Though she had never before been interested in owning or training a goshawk, she now begins to think that owning one is inevitable, and she decides to use the summer to train a wild goshawk, a job which will make her face her fears and her talents in new ways.
Her guide in this task is author T. H. White, who, in addition to writing The Sword in the Stone andThe Once and Future King, also wrote The Goshawk, about his own attempts to train a goshawk in the early 1930s. In alternating narratives of her own discoveries and those of White, Macdonald describes the taming and training – the “manning” of the hawk – eventually going in her own direction in the belief that White made some serious errors with Gos, his hawk. In the vocabulary of the “austringer,” a person who trains goshawks, Macdonald explains the equipment she uses – jesses, anklets, creances, hoods, and bells for the hawk – and each milestone is a cause for celebration, not just for the author but for the reader.
Hunting with Mabel teaches Macdonald some important lessons, climactic moments here. “Hunting…took me to the very edge of being human…yet every time the hawk caught an animal, it pulled me back from being an animal into being a human again.” Eventually, she learns that falconry is “a balancing act between wild and tame – not just in the hawk, but inside the heart and mind of the falconer.” In this brilliantly described and vivid depiction of life and death, Macdonald connects with readers in unique ways, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who will not be changed by this incredibly moving work. “In my time with Mabel,” she says, “I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known…what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it.”
on 23 March 2015
Well I am in the 1% of people who really disliked this book. The parts about the hawk were endearing - but that is only 1/3 of the book. I did not enjoy wading though the author's grieving process nor her odd - sometimes Very Odd - interjections about the life of T. H. White. I enjoyed the writing style when she wrote about the hawk but other passages were almost unreadable; forced, poorly constructed, meandering monstrosities of waffle or short clipped, overly dramatic and jarring outpourings. For me, it was a trial to complete and it took me 11 days, which is 8 days longer than a book this size would normally take - I just could not face it!. Had I not agreed to read it for Book Club I probably would not have finished. I kept thinking that it would improve - that we'd be out of self-analytic grief, that we'd drop the odd biographical forray and just leave us with Mabel, the beautiful hawk but it was not to be.